Literary Escapades: Sami Reiss On Books

Of all the people I asked about The Philip Roth of NYHC for I Question Not Me #4.5, Sami Reiss provided the best and most detailed response. This comprehensive discourse, along with an article he penned for GQ earlier this year, provided the impetus to feature his literary habits on Serve ‘em a Sentence. Sami needs no introduction, but the humor and style in his old zine Trumbull Escapades inspired some of my own projects along with an entire sub-generation of hardcore kids. Pick up a copy of Gratitude #3 for assorted Sami interjections, and more on his own literary proclivities below:

Tell me about yourself and your reading habits! And what are you reading right now?

Hey! I’m not a great fiction reader. I read a few at a time, thin for the commute (I work as an editor for the NHL’s website) and thick everywhere else. I don’t read much sports stuff anymore. I just finished True Grit this week and it’s just so great. Power Broker, a bit left… I stopped 600 pages in years back. Caro is prolix and reading about the tri-state area depresses me. The Prize, by Daniel Yergin, so vibrant and really funny. Brothers Karamazov, which… man… it doesn’t get better. I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold last month and went to The Strand after and bought seven other Le Carres the day after and found two on the street within the week. I read the best one first, Tinker Tailor is merely great. I finished The Honorable Schoolboy and it is rough. It’s nice to read third-tier fiction, because I’m such a newb and am still on the classics. The world we grew up in, we get socialized in different types of art early, so it’s nice to find foundational stuff later.

How did you become a frequent reader? And is there any point in your life that books have saved you the way that people frequently credit hardcore for saving their lives?

Growing up I read a lot, but mostly my dad’s Mad Magazines from the 1960s. A decade ago, I started working in sports and overloaded on that writing. My habits crystallized in 2013. I left a job where I wrote a lot and barely read. I couldn’t write in ‘13 because of the non-writing job I had kept. I was broke, a relationship had ended, working nights, nothing to do. I just read. I needed my vegetables. Every New Yorker cover to cover for a year, from there books by writers I liked or mentioned. That was a peaceful and fruitful time. I don’t think reading saved me. I was glum throughout, and for a while after. Reading didn’t give me life lessons, or help me meet new friends or solve my problems. But it gave me a sense of quiet, peace and purpose. It was a way to entertain myself and stay steady. It is nice to get better at something (writing) by doing nothing. I was excited every day to just get home and read. I don’t know if it’s a salvation. In our world you can feel old at 25, though as a reader and writer you’re young in your 40s. Which is nice. Maybe it saves lives. Free time was and is much less daunting knowing how many good books there are out there, and how many surprises there are bound to be.

How many library cards do you have, in what systems, and what is your favorite library branch?

I only have a NYPL card, and I only use it for Kanopy. I don’t check out many books. I can’t defend this habit, it’s super lame. I’ll spend time at the Brooklyn Public Library, read reference books and leave. There is more in 10 shelves there than on the whole internet. Ian Frazier the writer says he works at the big NYPL, in Midtown. They hold a big party every year and sometimes Robert Caro goes. I should start hanging out there. Will I? Not sure. I like buying books and having them forever and I don’t have a books budget, I buy when I see something I like. 

What is your favorite book, and who is your favorite author?

I don’t have hard favorites. There’s a peloton: James Joyce, Joseph Mitchell, Peter Hessler, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Elmore Leonard, Charles Portis, Larry McMurtry, Pynchon. I haven’t found a school of fiction I love. I don’t have the authority to have a favorite fiction writer, I’m too poorly read. Dubliners is my favorite collection and I go back to it a lot. Moby Dick made me want to lie down in silence because not a thing can follow up those chapters. It elevates the American east coast to London or Paris. Plus it’s so funny. The two books I wish I could read again for the first time are Brideshead Revisited by Waugh, which is heartbreaking, makes me want to feel bad, which I don’t like feeling. One of the best love stories ever written. The other is Barbarians at the Gate, a book of reporting about the leveraged buyout of RJR-Nabisco in the 1980s. It is honestly just the sickest fucking book ever written. It is so fucking good. If you see it, buy it. I can’t say enough about it, it is so funny and satisfying and so rich in detail. I did not think when I spent the $3 on a book about Nabisco being pulled off the stock market in the 1980s it would be one of the most ripping yarns of my life. But it is. Perfect book, and if I had a time machine I would travel back in time, read it again at my leisure, and then get to sports betting and righting wrongs, the details of which I won’t go into here. 

Thoughts on reading books at shows between bands? And have you ever moshed with a book in your pocket?

I went to shows in the 90s, the bad part, but I don’t mind this. It was a cliche back then, you would go to a localcore show and some twerp in suspenders minding a distro is reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, not helping anyone. Enough time has passed since that this association has been withdrawn. Reading a book anywhere raises a person’s dignity, especially on public transit. I’ve not moshed with a book in my back pocket. When I was going to shows and dancing I was reading Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow, which aren’t pocket reads. I never understood how people can fit books in there. I only wore 501s for a long time, to size. Those pockets can’t fit anything over a short story collection. And Dubliners meant and means too much for me to place it by my keys.

Is there any song that reminds you of a book, or vice versa?

I don’t think my brain works that way. I think the New York of V is identical to the New York of The King of Comedy. And Moss Icon reminds me of Rimbaud. Both were young, downtown beautiful, with short, small lives. Moss Icon was a mid-coast hardcore band and Rimbaud died young in what I bet was a rented apartment. Not a lot of photos of either. But their output and presentation was epochal, painfully beautiful and touched on the most universal themes of being alive and isolated. Their work will live forever. Rimbaud obviously has a better rep, but I think Moss Icon should go in the time capsule too.

Best books to take on tour?

I’ve never been on a proper tour, just a weekend here and there. I guess I never wanted to see what concert halls in Stuttgart looked like on weekday afternoons. The last tour I did was a weekend with Mil-Spec in July 2017. I thought I was getting a new job so I burned my vacation days. I didn’t get the job and don’t remember what I brought to read. I remember having very little time to do that. I went to Trash American Style, the awesome store in Connecticut, with Mental in 2003, on the way to either New York or DC. I bought Lolita and read it over the summer. It was so depressing. I made a point to not bring it to shows.

What’s your favorite literary reference in a hardcore song or band name?

It absolutely is “Here My Troubles Began” by SOS, which is on the Lockin Out “Sweet Vision” compilation. HMTB was the name of the second Maus comic I’m pretty sure. But it was also a headline on the cover of an early McSweeney’s, which is a periodical we all read and worshipped. SOS’ singer Jason Barrow and AJ McGuire and I all worshipped McSweeney’s, at least. I thought it was the start of something: hardcore kids who read David Foster Wallace and McSweeneys, who wore Arcteryxes and Jordan 1s, who sold Yankees Suck shirts and got into fights, but it didn’t broadly take off then. Barrow bought William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down, the original hardcover, six bound books, which McSweeney’s published, and two pairs of the original lime Air Max 95s on a Saturday once. The shoes were re-released that day and the book came out the week before. I was so impressed. I doubt HMTB is the first hardcore song with overt literary themes, but i bet it’s the first comp song based on contemporary serialized writing. I love the song too, still. It’s about responsibility. Literature is an adult game, or so it seems. At first glance it looks distant from child music. But so much fiction is about how much growing up and being an adult sucks. The Updike books about the Toyota guy are not so different from Clocked In, for example. 

Is there a book that you have read recently that was far outside of the scope of your usual reading habits, but you enjoyed it nonetheless?

This will sound horrid but I try and read about things I’m not interested in. I don’t enjoy books on music, culture or fashion… or sports. Those things comprise the larger parts of my interests and career path. I follow them in news but nothing is less interesting to me. I tend to read obvious fiction and non-fiction and journalism that covers either esoteric or mainstream things in plain ways. Brideshead Revisited, which I mentioned earlier, I bought for a dollar for no reason, and can’t stop thinking about. I wish I could read it again fresh. That’s the best thing I did outside my scope. It’s an obvious book, but still, just this amazing heartbreaking love story, which I usually don’t go for. I’ve tried a couple Evelyn Waugh books since and they didn’t hit. I think rolling the dice and trying new things with an open mind is a good rule of thumb for reading and other things too.

Are there any underrated books about hardcore that you would recommend? (Bonus if they are still in print). And were you psyched to see Trumbull Fanzine [sic] referenced in the straight edge book?

I think Radio Silence and Live Suburbia, both by Anthony Pappalardo, are great, unique and well-executed artifacts that don’t fall into the regular pattern of hardcore books’ hagiography, back-patting and unverified claims. Many books on the subject read like Al Bundy reliving Polk High football. So much reporting that comes off like stenography. I guess these things are hard to report. But what isn’t? You can’t make a full book from stories too good to check. Lore is cool, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just not good enough. Dance of Days is obviously another one: maybe the only very well-reported book about hardcore. It’s great, but I wouldn’t say it’s underrated. Anthony’s books are broader, nail it, and hold up well. The book speaks from authority and not ball-washing, and is critical too, in that artifacts and scenes are left out. It’s not like the books are languishing in obscurity or anything, but they’re as good as anything on the subject. I had no idea my zine made it into the Straight Edge book. What’d they say? My hope is someone from Excessive Force found it and trashed Owen and I. 

I think the Record Aficionado books by Jay Bil are some of the best journalism on the subject too. He leafed through every single zine in the ABC No Rio library and found ads and reviews on these records no one has seen in 30-plus years. I’m biased, since we’re good friends, but I think they are the best and most complete works of documentation on the subject.

What do you say to people if they say you have too many books? Lately I’ve noticed people starting to disdain owning or collecting things, alongside a passion for decluttering, and your GQ piece was a powerful rebuttal to this trend. Do you think books are immune to this societal mania?

No one’s said that to me. Not sure owning too many books is possible. I’m close to running out of shelf space, and when I get there I’ll build more shelves. People who live in smaller apartments than mine have more books than me. Thanks for saying that about the GQ piece, I’m not sure how powerful it was! Kondo is thoughtful on books. She said if you love them, keep them. Makes sense. Aesthetic minimalism can be hectoring, and it only works when done with noble intention. Otherwise it’s a pursuit of the idle rich. It’s dumb to be singly aesthetic-minded. The Constance Garrett translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy look better and have cooler jackets than Pevear and Volokhonsky. But what kind of dipshit would I be if I bought those? Garrett was a butcher — you need the good versions. I am sure books are not immune from top-down culling, but these trends rise and fall like hemlines. It’s a big movement, but it doesn’t have the power to get through your front door.

Any last literary thoughts you would like to share?

One, thank you for doing your thing, I think the world has finally started to catch up to the wave you have been on for the past decade. It’s inspiring and your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t like giving advice, but I have some on reading and writing, since I am guessing some younger kids might be reading. I don’t have much authority, but these are things I’ve learned from people more talented and successful than me. 

Reading: read as much as you can, don’t read related your interests, roll the dice on books you might not go for, like what you like, and push yourself. Find time to read, it’s good for your soul. 

Writing: I’ve barely begun and I don’t have a big body of work, but I’ve had people say they like my stuff but they’re not a writer like I am and couldn’t do it. I just want say here that’s bullshit. There’s no union card. Rough analogy but it’s like playing in a hardcore band: everyone is allowed to give it a shot, and there’s no barrier to entry. Not everyone’s good, but the good ones are the ones who pay attention. Writing anything is not some sort of different world you need to be born into. If you read, you’re a writer, you can be one, you can do it. Keep reading a lot, listen to people, find trouble, read Strunk and White, write multiple drafts, don’t be precious about turns of phrase and find good editors and listen to them. Like anything else that matters it’s just work and time. Things get boring when it’s just cis white males describing their experience, we need a surfeit of dispatches, fiction or non-, about life, from everyone else out there doing it.